22nd March 2020
The current coronavirus pandemic is a public health emergency and, as with any emergency, there can be the need for emergency legislation.
By definition, there is not often the need for emergency legislation (or, at least, there should not be), and so emergency legislation is not something that often needs to be considered.
Now in the United Kingdom the government is bringing forward emergency legislation.
There is a bill before parliament that will be enacted in days.
And yesterday there was a statutory instrument issued under public health legislation.
Both instruments raise particular issues, but rather than dealing with the detail of the provisions, this post asks what can be usefully said about emergency legislation generally.
Emergency legislation is, of itself, a good thing.
This may seem trite and obvious, but the existence of emergency legislation means that those responsible for dealing with an emergency are doing so in accordance with the rule of law.
Emergency legislation means that even though there are exceptional and dangerous challenges, the government is still wanting to place their actions on a lawful basis.
And by doing so, it means in turn that in principle those adversely affected by the legislation have (or should have) the ability to challenge decisions made under it – though in practice this may well be difficult.
There may be an emergency, but (at least in theory) the rule of law is still in place.
Emergency legislation, however, should be exceptional.
This means that once the emergency is over then the legislation should lapse.
It also means that the legislation should not be used for purposes other than dealing with the emergency.
A genuine fear is that emergency legislation, once enacted, is too convenient for a government to then let go.
And for the executive-minded, any emergency – whether regarding terrorism, public health or anything else – can be the pretext for an executive power grab.
Never let a good crisis go to waste, as the saying goes.
But the prospect that the emergency powers can be abused is not a reason for the powers not to granted for their proper purpose.
(The “thin end of the wedge” argument is often a substitute for thought.)
Emergency powers need to be time-limited and subject to judicial review and democratic supervision.
Most importantly, emergency legislation also has to be useful.
All because there is an emergency, it does not necessarily follow there is a need for emergency legislation.
The executive already has wide legal powers.
There are already many public health and related statutes.
There is always the risk of a “something must be done” sentiment meaning that emergency legislation is enacted just because something needs to be seen to be done – like an assertion of political virility.
Every piece of emergency legislation should make a difference and be relevant to the emergency faced, as well as going no further than required or lasting longer than is needed.
In other words: emergency legislation should always be necessary and proportionate.
In technical terms, much emergency legislation falls into two categories:
– first, to provide a legal basis for the government to do a particular thing that it would otherwise not be able to do at law; and
– second, to remove a legal restriction that would otherwise mean the government cannot do a particular thing at law.
In both situations, the legal status quo may be there for a reason – that parliament and the courts have provided for settled legal arrangements for what can and cannot happen in usual, happier, non-emergency times.
Emergency legislation is thereby a sudden interruption to these settled legal arrangements, for a specific urgent reason.
So when you look at a piece of legislation, you can see clauses that suspend some legal powers and clauses that create other legal powers.
But in both cases the three questions to be asked are the same:
– is that change necessary for the purpose of the particular emergency?
– does that change go further (and last longer) than necessary for this particular emergency?
– what are the safeguards against abuse?
That the government is bringing forward emergency legislation to deal with an emergency is to be welcomed – for that is why emergency laws exist or should exist.
And a government seeking to enact such legislation should have nothing to fear from anxious scrutiny.
But if there are genuine concerns that the laws are not necessary, or go further or last longer than required, or do not have safeguards against abuse, then those concerns should not be shouted down with “don’t you know there is a virus (or a war) on”.
Emergency legislation is for emergencies only – and proper scrutiny, like the rule of law, should never be suspended.
Thank you for visiting this independent law and policy blog.
If you value this free-to-read and independent constitutional, legal and policy commentary, you can follow and support this blog by:
- subscribing to this blog, there is subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile);
- becoming a Patreon subscriber.
Comments are welcome but pre-moderated, and so comments will not be published if irksome.